Over half the prisoners in Sierra Leone’s jails have not been sentenced, according to recently released survey data from the Sierra Leonean human rights watchdog Prison Watch.
“There are prisoners who have been on remand for more than three or four years all over the country,” Prison Watch official Namsana Coker told IRIN in the capital, Freetown. “There is a major problem of access to justice in prison.”
According to the Prison Watch report, released in February and covering September 2006 till September 2007, of the 1,899 prisoners in the system at the end of September 2007, 698 were on remand and a further 321 had trials pending.
Benedict Sannoh, chief of human rights and rule of law at the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone, agreed that the length of remand and adjournment of cases in the country was “excessive”.
“One reason is prosecutorial capacity is very weak,” he said, noting that in the 1980s, before the 1991-2002 civil war, which displaced half the population and ruined the country’s economy and social infrastructure, the government employed 27 prosecuting attorneys, compared to seven today.
“The judge cannot dismiss a case himself; the prosecutor has to be there, so the person will just stay in jail.”
“It’s a two-way street,” Sannoh noted. “The accused might have been wrongly charged and he has his own right to due process, and there’s the question of the victim’s rights to justice being delayed.”
Prison Watch also monitors conditions in the 13 jails it monitors around the country. It describes conditions for the long-term prisoners as being “extremely basic”.
Remand prisoners, juveniles and women are held alongside convicted prisoners, in some prisons crowded into cells more than three times beyond capacity, it said.
Only death row prisoners are kept separately - at the massive Pademba Road prison in Freetown, where 1,068 people are in a prison built for 324.
One meal a day is the norm, and prison officials sometimes even have to source their own food to keep prisoners alive.
“Feeding in prisons is a serious problem,” said Prison Watch official Namsana Coker. “Sometimes the prisons go six months without receiving food - there is visible malnutrition, compounded by poor sanitation”.
In most prisons detainees sleep on the floor and in “unhygienic and poor sanitary conditions”, according to the Prison Watch report.
Beatings, rape, and illegal drug possession in jails are all common, the organisation said.